Accepted to present at the BERA Conference 2019

I am very please to have had my paper ‘Lost in Translation: Considering practical approaches to ethical dilemmas in controversial research’. This paper draws upon an aspect of the ethical approaches taken during my PhD research. Below you can read the submitted abstract.


The impetus for this conceptual paper arose from the author’s experience of being presented with a nexus of ethical dilemmas regarding anonymity and confidentiality, when designing a study to explore how different state-funded secondary schools and teachers in England perceive and implement the ‘fundamental British values’ (FBV) agenda.


Since 2014, all state-funded schools in England are required to promote the four fundamental British values: rule of law; individual liberty; democracy; and mutual respect and tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs (DfE, 2014). These values originate from the 2011 Prevent strategy, part of Contest, the government’s counter-terrorism strategy, which states that ‘Extremism is vocal or active opposition to FBV’ (Home Office, 2003). In 2014, it was reported that there was alleged evidence, of governing bodies of some schools in Birmingham being over taken over by Islamic fundamentalists. Although this evidence was deemed to be fabricated, the government investigated 21 schools in Birmingham, led by Counter Terrorism Command. No evidence of radicalisation was found and the investigation concluded that some individuals associated with the schools neglected to challenge extremist views (Arthur, 2015).

This investigation led to creation of new policies, on-the-spot Ofsted inspections and new guidance on Spiritual, Moral, Social and Cultural development (SMSC)4. As promoting SMSC was a whole school responsibility, the new advice around promoting FBV became cross-curricular, embedding FBV in all aspects of pupils’ personal development, and becoming subject to Ofsted inspections. This has made the FBV agenda high stakes. Teachers and school staff were expected to report students that they perceived to be at risk of radicalisation so that interventions could be made, and some claimed that this made teachers instruments of surveillance (Farrell & Lander, 2018) . The FBV agenda became a source of controversy amongst some schools, with teachers and religious groups expressing a binary of ‘us and them’ (Smith, 2016).


Considering the historical narrative of FBV and the interactions required for data collection between researcher, schools and teachers, the ethical challenges of confidentiality and anonymity began to become apparent to me. This paper draws upon my experiences of conducting studies on schools selected by maximum variation, whilst navigating the controversy of the phenomenon being studied.

I aim to expand the discourse concerning ethics in educational qualitative research, by making recommendations based on my experiences of the different stages of participant selection and recruitment during my research journey: articulating the reflective processes I went through, and exploring the challenges I faced associated with upholding anonymity and confidentiality.

I consider the use of pseudonyms, power imbalances and ownership of data, and discuss the strategies taken to maintain confidentiality without schools being identified based on their selection criteria: region; type of school and whether the school was designated as having a religious character.

Finally this paper explores the how the ethical processes led to the practicalities of communicating clearly with participants, for example regarding the ethical considerations of the initial school selection process, so that they could make an informed judgement as to whether to participate or not.


Whilst grappling with the ethical dilemmas presented, I found that many ethical standards and guidelines lacked specific detailed references on how to maintain anonymity and confidentiality; for instance with regard to the process of allocating pseudonyms, approaches to selecting participants ethically, and communicating the ethical processes for participant selection.

Some qualitative researchers have discussed whether generating a new contribution to knowledge or upholding ethical questions is more important (Tolich, 2010). I believe that through being reflective on the ethical dilemmas I was presented with, and by making the ethical dilemmas I faced explicit, I was better able to implement methods to protect and uphold participant anonymity and confidentiality. This therefore generates a contribution to knowledge, by sharing strategies which would otherwise be undisclosed or lacking in detail, specifically relating to researching controversial topics in education.


1 DfE. (2014). Promoting fundamental British values as part of SMSC in schools: Departmental advice for maintained schools. London: DfE: Crown Copyright.
2 Home Office. (2003). CONTEST: The Government;s counter-terrorism strategy. Home Office. London: Home Office.
3 Arthur, J. (2015). Extreemism and Neo-Liberal Education Policy: A Contextual Critique of the Trojan Horse Affair in Birmingham Schools. British Journal of Educational Studies, 63(3), 311-328.

4 Farrell, F. & Lander, V. (2018) “We’re not British values teachers are we?”: Muslim teachers’subjectivity and the governmentality of unease. Educational Review.
5 Smith, H. (2016). Britishness as Racist Nativsm: A Case of the Unamed Other. Journal of Education for Teaching, 36(3), 298-313.
6 Tolich, M. (2010). A critique of current practice: ten foundational guidelines for autoethnographers. Qualitative Health Research, 20(12), 1599- 1610.

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